Going apple picking is a hallmark of fall. Plucking apples from a tree and drinking a cup of cider is a way to experience local agriculture and reconnect with nature as cool weather approaches. Although many autumn activities are on hold this year, some local orchards are welcoming visitors to pick apples in the fresh air and enjoy outdoor activities while social distancing.
Mike and Rita Stepp from Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard in Hendersonville turned to experts for advice as they got ready for the fall season. They consulted the North American Farmers’ Direct Market Association and the N.C. Agritourism Networking Association to find best practices for protecting the public when they visit the farm.
“We’ve rearranged our apple house, basically spread things out quite a bit. We’ve put up a tent out front so that when folks come up, we can direct them, give them information, whatever we need before we give them containers out there. Our container situation, we completely redone it where in the past we had baskets that we would give folks and we’d reuse those. Now we’ve got several different sizes of boxes, so we can give those folks a box, we pre-sell so that they don’t have to come back into the tent to try to cut down on as many people in the tent as we can,” he says.
After people venture out into the orchard, load up their boxes with apples, and walk back toward the apple house, they’re usually hungry and thirsty. Apple slushies and cider donuts are part of the apple-picking experience, and Mike and Rita Stepp found ways to offer those quintessential fall foods while maintaining social distancing.
“We let folks come through our main building for t-shirts, for slushies, for donuts, but they’re all spread out, relieving a lot of traffic that was inside to begin with. Our picnic shed, we spread out our tables, sanitize those. We limit the number of people on the wagon rides so that they can distance themselves. We’ve got Plexiglas, and of course, employees inside the building are wearing masks, and we ask people to wear a mask inside the building,” he says.
Opening day was August 15th and Mike Stepp says it went well. “We did have a real good weekend this past weekend and things seem to run pretty smoothly. So I think having everything spread out like we’ve done, it seems to work pretty good. We’ve not really had any customer complaints. They see what we’re trying to do and understand for the most part,” he says.
There are some traditions that won’t be the same this apple season. The N.C. Apple Festival canceled it’s downtown street fair and King Apple Parade, which usually bring tens of thousands of visitors and more than 100 vendors to downtown Hendersonville each Labor Day. Instead, festival organizers encouraged people to visit individual orchards, including Stepp’s.
Mike Stepp was the festival’s 2019 Apple Farmer of the Year, and although he was saddened that the street fair and parade were cancelled, he understood why the festival committee made the decision.
“I feel for the committee. I think they did the right thing. I think the only wise thing to do is to be prudent about this whole situation. If we had some kind of outbreak or something like that, it could’ve been devastating for the whole county. So it’s just sad that it had to happen that way, but I think they made the best out of a bad situation,” he says.
He says it’s not quite business as usual at their farm, but their new u-pick procedures and an abundance of outdoor space make it a safer activity for people looking to experience nature and agriculture this fall.
“When you come out to a farm, you’re going to get to be outside in the fresh air and wide open spaces. [Apple farmers] are out there really trying to do all they can to keep people safe and provide them with as good of an experience as they can. From what I see, all the growers are trying to do that, so I think people can still have a very good time at the farms this year,” he says.
There are at least eight apple orchards in Hendersonville that are open for u-pick this fall. Farms post COVID-19 rules and guidelines on their individual websites. Links to u-pick farms throughout the Southern Appalachians are available in ASAP’s online Local Food Guide: www.appalachiangrown.org